A Rare Glimpse of the Invisible

Art on Paper
January / February 2004

By Megan Ratner

According to independent paper conservator Andrea Pitsch, "a good and sensitive conservation treatment is about exercising control and understanding limitations." Pitsch works in a bright, orderly studio in Manhattan, with two assistants. The atmosphere is cheerfully focused. She is discussing the conservation treatment of Cat walking, changing to a gallop, an Eadweard Muybridge motion study dated 1887, sent to her by the Laurence Miller Gallery, a regular client. In a profession known for its discretion, this is a rare opportunity.

Much-publicized projects such as the restoration of the Sistine Chapel spotlight the physical and semantic complexities of conservation – ideally, a proportional blend of science and art. Though frequently necessary for even the most coddled objects, conservation occurs quietly, often a private matter between conservator and client. Many universities grant conservation degrees (Pitsch holds a Master's degree in Art Conservation from Queen's College, Canada), but the profession is as yet unlicensed, and even insurance coverage is limited to fire and theft, excluding the damaging effects of age and wear.

Reputation plays a seminal role for independent conservators. Pitsch cultivated her skills in the conservation departments of the National Gallery of Canada, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and the Guggenheim Museum before opening her own studio in 1985. She is a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and follows the institute's Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. With an artist's respect for materials, Pitsch draws on years of first-hand experience to determine "what the paper wants." Despite conservation's scientific basis, in treating a piece of art "you start with what you know and incorporate your scientific and professional knowledge according to the specific needs of each situation. It's not a mechanical thing."

Pitsch chooses her words carefully, her manner measured and authoritative. Wearing a magnified visor, she inspects the Cat. Muybridge contact-printed the cyanotypes, enlarging each negative on a separate piece of glass and assembling them into a large composite. The final image, a collotype, was printed in ink from a plate prepared from a gelatin negative. This photochmechanical process using ink and paper rules out photographic treatment, making paper conservation the only option. Pitsch needn't know the source of the damage, but because every conservation procedure puts stress on the paper, she has to know the piece well enough to take considered action. With a deadline of several weeks, Pitsch intends to blend out imperfections in the surrounding border (fortunately, the image itself was undamaged) to create a balanced background "that does not detract from the image."

Gently running her finger over Cat's grimy border, Pitsch finds little loose dirt; most of the particles are embedded in the paper's porous fibers. Pale brown spots, ranging from smears to dots, speckle other areas of the border, forming "rusty scuffs" and "foxing," respectively (the latter type of mold caused by exposure to high humidity). She works from the outermost surface to the deepest point she can without disrupting the composition of the paper, delicately using erasers of different grades to lift as many solid particles as possible. "It's really a lot like surgery. No good generally comes of taking too much off or going too far."

She then puts the sheet into a bath of filtered water. Improbable and slightly perplexing as such immersion seems, the water reduces acidity and diminishes discoloration, whitening the paper generally. Though Pitsch concedes that purposely dipping paper in water sounds counterintuitive, these baths are indispensable to her work: "Water is my most powerful solvent." At each stage, Pitsch aims for consistency, her method tempered, her pace deliberate. After the paper dries, she meticulously spot-bleaches stubborn spots, the process controlled and limited by the structural strength of the paper itself. "I address the stains and do whatever is feasible locally. The object has then had its stain reduction. I don't say removal because I don't make promises I'm not absolutely sure I can keep."

Pitsch then sizes the paper with gelatin "to close up the pores a little bit and prevent nitrogen and sulphur absorption from the air." She reinforces creases and mends tears on an as-needed basis, using membranous mulberry paper and wheat-starch paste. At this point, the paper is pressed between blotters and weights to prevent distortion from the paste. Finally, the Muybridge is humidified and completely flattened.

Made more than one hundred years ago, Cat will not look pristine. "Some people would call it restoration to put back missing pieces. Somebody else might say you're no longer conserving when you make a chemical change like putting it in water." But neither she nor her clients subscribe to such doctrinaire views. For Pitsch, conservation treatments are episodes in the life of the object; its history is always part of the equation. "The achievement of a conservation is that you will look at this object, see 1887, and think that this piece of paper has got a few little marks on it but it's well-preserved. " The success of Pitsch's treatment is apparent not in how much can be seen but how little; as she says, "ideally, my work should be invisible."

David & George